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It’s the burning question among many after the province’s Special Investigations Unit cleared six Toronto police officers this week of any wrongdoing in the 29-year-old's death
Toronto police officers are trained to adopt a “tactical mindset” when they’re called to situations involving a person in crisis.
A tactical mindset “is one in which officers adopt a tactically safe position while effectively communicating with a person in crisis.
“Operating from a position of security allows the officers to retain their composure which is essential for the critical thinking required to navigate these incidents.”
That’s what Joseph Martino, the director of the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), writes in his report released Wednesday clearing the six Toronto police officers involved in the police custody death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet.
Martino goes on: “The emphasis is on [the] principles of de-escalation… [and] rapport-building with a person in crisis.”
That, he says, can involve “asking the subject’s name, reassuring them that they are safe and will not be harmed, engaging in active listening, keeping one’s voice calm and moderate, asking open-ended questions [and] use of a hook [like a person’s likes and dislikes] to build trust.”
The idea, he writes, is “empowering the person in crisis to take control of the outcome.”
But little of that seems to have happened when police were called to investigate a “domestic disturbance” at the High Park Avenue apartment Korchinski-Paquet shared with her mother and brother on May 27.
Korchinski-Paquet, who suffered from epilepsy, had a seizure earlier in the day. She was “irate” when the police arrived. There had been a confrontation with her brother. A TV was broken. Glass from broken bottles lay on the floor.
Korchinski-Paquet would end up dead within 10 minutes of the police’s arrival after falling some 60 metres from the balcony of the 24th-floor apartment.
The dashboard camera of one of the police cruisers parked outside would record the last few feet of Korchinski-Paquet’s fall. The audio from the camera would catch the sound of the impact of her body as it hit the ground.
Martino found that the actions of the officers at the scene did not meet the test of criminal liability.
But the question lawyers for the family are asking is: did Toronto police do enough to prevent her death?
It’s one of many issues that still hang over the incident.
Photograph taken by the SIU of Korchinski-Paquet apartment living room. A portable air-conditioner and broken TV are on the floor.
There are still many holes in what happened in crucial few moments before the 29-year-old fell to her death to say whether police could have done anything differently.
Lawyers for the family have raised the possibility that there may have been a brief struggle before Korchinski-Paquet’s death.
The SIU relied on audio from wireless microphones worn by two of the six officers on the scene and a video from a security camera in the hallway of the apartment building to help piece together what happened.
Korchinski-Paquet is agitated. In transcripts of the audio released by the SIU, she is swearing when the police arrive. Her brother Reece is in the stairwell. Her mother is outside the apartment door.
There had been five calls between the three of them to 911. Knives were mentioned and police arrive anticipating a volatile situation – one of the officers is carrying a “sock gun,” a long gun that fires bean bag projectiles. But there are no knives. The scene is mostly calm until Korchinski-Paquet tells police that she has to go back into the apartment to use the bathroom.
She is followed into the apartment by an officer. The SIU report says that Korchinski-Paquet “balked” at the presence of the police officer “and demanded the officer leave.”
The officer refused “saying it was for her own safety.” Martino describes that decision in his report as “prudent.” But it would also end up being fatal.
When Korchinski-Paquet emerges from the bathroom, she’s talking on her cellphone with her father.
“Dad all that I did was ask him to turn the TV down and – and Reece started freaking out,” the SIU report quotes Korchinski-Paquet as saying.
An officer who appears to be talking on his police radio describes Korchinski-Paquet as being “a little erratic” and “quite hard to reason with.”
It’s at this point in the transcript, at 17:38:43, that tensions seem to rise.
“Don’t wag your finger in my face. I’m not a dog,” Korchinski-Paquet says.
It’s not clear who she’s talking to. It’s also not always clear from the transcript which officers are speaking throughout the incident. Many parts are attributed to “unknown male” voices. Other sections of the transcript are marked as “inaudible.”
But it’s shortly after the first officer in the apartment suggests Korchinski-Paquet talk to the paramedic on the scene – she refuses – that the situation takes a turn for the worse.
It’s at that point that three officers who were in the hallway enter the apartment “within seconds.” Among them is the officer with the sock gun. The move seems to catch Korchinski-Paquet off guard.
The SIU report says that she “backed away from the officers,” knocking over a portable air conditioning unit in the corner of the room. “Hey, hey, hey,” says the voice of an unidentified male. It’s at that moment that Korchinski-Paquet appears headed for the balcony.
View from Korchinski-Paquet balcony of neighbouring balcony covered with netting.
The report says that “Very quickly, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet scaled the balcony railing and the SO [subject officer] lost sight of her.”
The SIU report spends little time describing to what extent there may have been efforts by police to talk to Korchinski-Paquet.
Martino’s report describes the subject officer attempting to open the screen door to the balcony. And Korchinski-Paquet “using her body weight” to keep the door closed.
After that, it’s a bit of a blur. The decision was made by police to “disengage” from the situation.
But it’s unclear to what extent there may have been any conversation between Korchinski-Paquet and police.
There’s some indication from the SIU report that there were discussions among officers about calling the Emergency Task Force (ETF).
View of Korchinski-Paquet balcony directly behind balcony door.
Martino writes that the decision by officers in the apartment “to disengage is open to legitimate scrutiny.”
“Arguably, the situation called for a more proactive posture at that moment; one in which, perhaps, officers entered onto the balcony to try to coax or physically pluck Ms. Korchinski-Paquet back to safety,” writes Martino.
But Martino says that time did not allow.
“Within seconds of scaling the railing and attempting to make her way over to the neighbouring balcony, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet lost her balance and fell.”
A “netting” surrounded the neighbouring balcony. The SIU report says that the netting was “undisturbed.” But that pieces of cooked salmon were found entangled in the netting by SIU investigators.
“Similar salmon was also observed in a frying pan on the stove in Ms. Korchinski-Paquet’s apartment.”
Martino concludes that “Korchinski-Paquet had given the officers no reason to believe that she was intent on harming herself.”
In interviews with the SIU, some officers offered that the decision not to engage Korchinski-Paquet was pursued “so as not to do anything that could startle or further provoke” her.
“The officers’ best recourse was to have the Emergency Task Force dispatched to a situation that had suddenly become life-and-death.
“Arguably, they might have acted more proactively in the penultimate moments of the incident by venturing onto the balcony. That said, the concern that doing so might worsen the situation was not without merit,” Marino concludes.
View from Korchinski-Paquet balcony of neighbouring balcony covered with netting.
Lawyers for the Korchinski-Paquet family argue that the officers at the scene had “a duty to care” for Korchinski-Paquet.
Police have a legal obligation to provide a “reasonable” standard of care while performing their duties to those who may do harm to others or themselves. It’s an established principle in law.
The SIU director agrees police had a duty to care for Korchinski-Paquet.
He writes in his report that Korchinski-Paquet was technically in police custody. And that “the officers consequently owed her a ‘duty’ to provide the necessaries of life.” Those are spelled out in Section 215 of the Criminal Code.
Police at the scene also had leeway under the Mental Health Act to take Korchinski-Paquet into custody.
The Act stipulates that “Police officers may take a person into custody for psychiatric examination at hospital where they have sufficient grounds to believe the person is: acting or has acted in a disorderly manner, at risk of self-harming or harming another person, and suffering from a mental disorder that will likely result in serious harm to the person or another person.”
Only there was some confusion among officers at the scene whether the Mental Health Act applied in Korchinski-Paquet’s case.
Yet, Martino found that there were “no reasonable grounds to believe that the officers’ failure to take Ms. Korchinski-Paquet into custody for her own protection amounted to an offence.” The circumstances surrounding the domestic disturbance that led to police being called were still under investigation, he says in his report.
“The officers had conflicting information about who had done what to whom and were still attempting to sort that out when Ms. Korchinski-Paquet took the drastic action she did.”
Lawyers for the family suggest there may have been a brief struggle in the seconds before Korchinski-Paquet ended up on the balcony.
They point to bruising found on the left upper forearm of Korchinski-Paquet (consistent with “grab marks”) in an independent autopsy conducted for the family. The autopsy also found a contusion on Korchinski-Paquet’s back consistent with “blunt force trauma” that may have been caused before her fall.
Martino said he could no conclude the injuries did not occur before police arrived.
Family lawyer Knia Singh revealed at a press conference Wednesday that the hyoid bone was also not present in Korchinski-Paquet’s body when the independent coroner conducted his autopsy.
There was no mention or explanation of that in Martino’s report. SIU spokesperson Monica Hudon declined to offer comment on the claim when contacted by NOW.
“All we are prepared to say about the case is what has been released in our lengthy report, video statement and press materials.”
Martino parses the question in his report.
The MCIT is made up of a psychiatric nurse and first-class constable. There are some 10 teams covering two to four police divisions each. They are dispatched to calls where a person is experiencing a mental health crisis.
The Toronto Police Service has no policy governing the units – except that they should not be “first responders” to incidents involving weapons.
The units are governed by the force’s Emotionally Disturbed Persons policy. That policy includes dispatching the unit for “any person that may be in a state of crisis.”
Police dispatchers are also trained to identify when the unit should be dispatched to a scene.
According to the SIU, all the officers who responded to the scene were trained in “critical thinking and de-escalation” techniques. One of the officers – the same one who made the decision not to engage Korchinski-Paquet on the balcony – spent three years with the unit.
But there seems to have been little consideration given to calling in the unit.
The Toronto police service’s current MCIT coordinator was interviewed by the SIU.
He stated that although epilepsy is not considered a mental health disorder “its signs and symptoms may appear to be a mental health concern.” And, as such, “it is a physical issue where a person should be taken to a hospital.”
Still, Martino concluded that he could not “find fault” with the decision not to call the MCIT.
“Even though it was apparent that none of the parties had actually sustained any serious injuries, the officers had not yet located and secured the knives that had reportedly been brandished in the domestic disturbance that prompted their attendance.”
Martino goes back and forth on the issue.
“The SIU cannot and must not turn a blind eye to issues of race to the extent they are manifest in a specific case under investigation,” Martino offers in his report.
But he says his job was a “narrow one” – to determine if any of the officers committed a criminal offence.
He says his investigation did not turn up any “overt racism” on the part of the officers. At the same time, he could not discount that “questions of race were entirely absent in the encounter.”
He notes that “There is evidence that Ms. Korchinski-Paquet attempted to court favour with the police at one point by informing them that her father was coming and he was ‘white.’”
Only none of the officers said they heard it.